A report by accountant firm MNP and ATB financial says the Indigenous economy in Alberta represents a huge untapped economic resource but many Indigenous entrepreneurs still face systemic barriers to success.
Tarra Wright-Many Chief owns and operates Many Chief Tours, an ecotourism company focused on Indigenous culture and history in Calgary. She says even with a good credit score and proven business model getting basic financial services took her months when she was starting out.
“I was at one of the big five banks and wanting to go in and open a business account, get a credit card,” she said, “but I was stuck at the point of going to three different branches of the same bank and they wouldn’t even run my numbers to see if I could get a basic credit card.”
Insurance also became an issue, taking her six months to find someone who would insure her for something she needed for the basics of operating a business.
She ultimately had to remove references to Indigenous culture from descriptions of her tour company. Instead, she said she was just offering historical walking tours of Calgary and suddenly doors began to open for her.
“People don’t realize that on ground level that you get to someone and they’re a gatekeeper because they hear Indigenous and they don’t see us as equal.”
Yet the report by MNP and ATB Financial notes that the Indigenous economy represents two per cent of the provincial GDP, equal in size to the agricultural sector and represents a huge opportunity for the province’s further growth.
Data collected for the report found 544,000 businesses in the province and that fewer than 3,100 or about 1 per cent are Indigenous-owned.
‘It’s on us to understand’
Jon Horsman, with ATB financial, says the report helps them understand the market size they are trying to serve, and work toward more accessible banking for Indigenous entrepreneurs.
It’s about building practices within the bank and working on relationships in the community so they can offer customized financial solutions to Indigenous people.
“It’s on us to understand how they’re organized and how capital is being deployed, how the businesses are organized and governed,” Horsman said.
Wright-Many Chief wants to know how the bank will move forward when it comes to removing systemic racism and barriers from the process.
While she says she is welcoming the research, the provincial government should be doing more to support Indigenous business.
“Not only with rolling out programs and workshops, but also working on developing services that can work with businesses one on one,” she says. “You know, there’s really only a handful or less than a handful of Indigenous development or development organizations that focus on indigenous business.
On the federal level, Wright-Many Chief says there could be more efforts into ensuring Indigenous businesses get a fair shot at federal procurement.
“Let’s start being educated on economic reconciliation … [and] learning about how interacting is different.”